Most film franchises have a list of standard ingredients that, when combined properly, create a sequel or prequel that fits in right along with the other entries. We as fans expect a level of continuity and attention to detail that will make franchise entries feel smoothly contiguous, and we expect the people who are making these movies to know what we love about these films, and (more importantly) why.
That’s not to say that franchises can’t tinker with the formula (or throw it out) to deliver innovative and diverse entries. We should encourage that, but we all know that sequels are popular because we want more of the things we like.
Join me and fellow Fan Contributor Drew Dietsch as we dive into the Jaws franchise, a once monumental pillar of Universal and a staple at their theme parks, which has fallen into relative obscurity. I don’t mean to say that one of the best and most highly regarded films of all time is now obscure — that’d be silly. I mean the FRANCHISE, the big business that orbited around Jaws. That’s pretty dead at the moment, though I’m sure there’s a team of executives trying to figure out how to reboot it.
That’s gotta be a tough job, because three out of the four films aren’t exactly fondly remembered (though only the fourth is truly odious), and Jaws is, well, Jaws. How do you follow that up, especially now that Universal’s gross mishandling of the franchise has plunged shark movies into the B-movie morass?
Well, first we have to define the formula. To make a Jaws movie like the ones that have come before, here are the ingredients you’ll need:
The Brody Family
One of the most damning choices that Universal made with this franchise’s sequels was to keep them all about the Brody family. A giant great white repeatedly attacks swimmers and boaters off Amity Island and Martin Brody, the local chief of police, kills it? That’s already a ludicrous scenario. To repeat it is just plain stupid, but they did it anyway, and through solid screenwriting and direction Jaws 2 works. In fact, it works quite well at times. But in Jaws 3-D when Brody’s sons just so happen to be at SeaWorld in Florida when two great whites show up, the franchise has boldly pushed through the stupid barrier into… into what? Magical realism? Then, get this — Jaws: The Revenge acts as if the third film never existed, and a great white shark bites the arms off Brody’s younger son. After that ruins Christmas, Brody’s widow and older son wind up in the Bahamas, where the same friggin’ shark has followed them to polish them off. In an effort to explain this dum-dum premise in the film’s novelization, author Hank Searls invented a subplot involving a voodoo curse placed upon the Brody family.
I have no words.
My point is this: either remake the first film and find a better way to utilize the Brody family in potential sequels. Or, better yet, ditch the Brody family entirely. There will never be a better Martin Brody than Roy Scheider, nor a better Ellen Brody than Lorraine Gary. Open the franchise up to include new characters and scenarios. [Travis Newton]
I’m with Travis when it comes to dumping the Brody family, but a character that is integral to the world of Jaws is Amity Island. One of the reasons Jaws 2 works as well as it does is because it reinforces how important the setting of Amity Island was in the first film. There’s something almost mythic to seeing this idyllic beach town become besieged by a primal darkness. Even the opening of Jaws: The Revenge — after you remove the bonkers idea of the shark having a motive — somewhat works because of it being set in Amity. It’s the only place that feels right for this story.
It’s intriguing to see how a tight-knit community deals with an outside force that threatens its way of life, and that level of reflection is nowhere to be found in the two sequels that take place outside of Amity. The settings in those films are inherent gimmicks that only cheapened the brand. Jaws and Amity Island should be inseparable. So, does a new Jaws film see where Amity Island is today? Is it still quaint and unassuming, or has the legacy of the earlier films affected Amity in ways that haven’t been explored yet in the series? Is the town an empty shell of its former self, or has it embraced its grisly past by turning the events of the previous films into a tourist trap business?
No matter what, a return to Jaws should coincide with a return to Amity Island. [Drew Dietsch]
A Big Rubber Shark
If you know anything about the making of the first film, I’m sure you’ve heard the name Bruce thrown around a lot. Bruce was the affectionate nickname for the film’s animatronic sharks, designed by production designer Joe Alves and built by effects artist Robert A. Mattey (Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea).
Bruce doesn’t look a whole lot like a real great white shark. Glimpsed briefly under rippling water he looks okay, but if you look at our leading fish closely he’s got a very broad, blunt head, endearingly flabby jowls, and goofy teeth. His bite doesn’t work like a real shark’s, and he doesn’t move like one either. That doesn’t stop me from loving Bruce, but take a look at this beauty:
That was designed and built by Walt Conti and his crew at Edge Innovations. They’re the go-to people for underwater animatronics, offering alarmingly lifelike creatures that can even swim realistically. They did the astounding animatronic mako sharks for Deep Blue Sea, but the beauty above was featured in the almost fun Shark Night 3D. There were quite a few ugly CG sharks in those films as well, but the animated ones simply don’t compare to having a big rubber shark in the frame. Also, there’s no escaping the fact that a core part of the Jaws franchise’s charm comes from its practical sharks, which went from unrealistic to completely doofy over the course of four films. The theme park animatronics looked doofy, too. If (when, really) Jaws makes a return to cinemas, it needs a new practical Bruce. Edge Innovations should handle it, and that’s that. [Travis Newton]
Action and Terror at Sea
Jaws is recognized as the first summer blockbuster, and that distinction means it set the bar for what a “summer blockbuster” should deliver. Today, a summer blockbuster means big action and spectacle. In 1975, Jaws was the epitome of spectacle with substance. The sequels slowly began to lose the “substance” part, but the ambition to deliver on that spectacle was still there even in the franchise’s most hollow moments. Any subsequent return to the series should be striving for indelible sequences like Hooper’s ill-fated dive into an anti-shark cage, or the explosive attack on the speedboat in Jaws 2.
It’s also important to remember how effective Jaws was as a horror movie. It terrified a nation out of the water, and that had more to do with the sincere approach to the material than it did a fake shark. The later films became increasingly uninterested in trying to evoke genuine fear and went for kooky shark shenanigans instead. This is partially why the majority of shark films today are self-aware parodies of themselves. Jaws needs to be scary; humans will never stop fearing the expansive unknowns of our oceans’ depths, and that’s something a new Jaws movie needs to take advantage of. Movies like Open Water, The Reef, and the upcoming The Shallows prove that you can still approach this kind of story seriously, and a new Jaws film should outdo all of those when it comes to making the audience invested in the action and the terror of the scenario. [Drew Dietsch]
John Williams’ Music
There’s no way around it — a Jaws movie should sound like Jaws. Of course it should have that classic two-note shark motif, but the score should also allude to the sense of high-seas adventure that made the first film so fun. Composer John Williams‘ return to the franchise in Jaws 2 brought so much value and class to that film, and a grandiose musical style like that of Williams could be (and should be) a crucial element in a future franchise installment. [Travis Newton]
So with the elements defined, where does Jaws go from here? Well, I bet the performance of this summer’s shark movie, The Shallows, will be watched very closely. It it does well at the box office and scares moviegoers and critics alike, I bet that will grease some gears at Universal. The release of The Shallows coincides with this year’s Shark Week, as does the release of some exciting new Jaws merchandise from shoe manufacturer Sperry. 41 years later, the franchise may not be beloved, but somewhere, the shark still lurks in the depths. He’ll be back.